Aerial Weapons – Way Ahead for the IAF

The immediate concern for the IAF is to replace and upgrade AAMs by acquiring those with longer range and better capability under counter-measures environment

Issue: 09-2019By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)Photo(s): By MBDA
Interception, Combat and Self-defence Missile: MICAIR on Rafale aircraft

The advent of the air launched missiles greatly changed the dynamics of aerial combat. The air engagement between Indian Air Force (IAF) and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on February 27 shifted focus back to aerial weapons. IAF had clear Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile advantage after inductions of Mirage 2000 and MiG-29s. This had got altered after PAF got the AMRAAM AIM-120C-5 on July 26, 2010, along with the upgraded F-16C/D Block 50/52+ aircraft. Five AMRAAMs were reportedly fired during the engagement. Only one ‘may have hit’ Abhinandan’s aircraft, but these did force the IAF aircraft to carry out defensive maneuvering to shrink the missile envelope. Media reports indicate that IAF immediately ordered latest variants of Israeli Spice-2000 glide bombs and Russian R-27 and R-77 BVR missiles.

Acute shortage of ammunition and weapons in the Armed Forces have been routinely highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in its reports to the Parliament. While the IAF is at an all time low of 30 fighter squadrons, the inventory of aerial weapons like missiles and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM), is also far from sufficient for even a short intense war. While nations give great importance to high-visibility, highvalue contracts to acquire aircraft, weapons get a lower priority. Armaments have a finite shelf-life and quicker obsolescence. Weapon platforms are no good without potent armament.


Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) with up to 30 km range, are called close-combat missiles (CCM) or ‘Within Visual Range’ (WVR) missiles. WVR are mostly heat-seeking, while BVR are mostly radar controlled. Some long range missiles also use inertial guidance. Raytheon’s AIM-9L (1977) was the first all-aspect WVR missile that could sense aircraft heat even from front quarters. The missile seeker of the more modern MBDA AIM-120 ASRAAM can distinguish the target heat from the countermeasure flares. Israeli Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Python-5 is an electro-optical missile which does not require a heat source and so is more effective against low heat source aircraft like propeller driven UAVs. BVR missiles today have ranges beyond 200 km. China is developing PL-15 Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) with over 200 km range and claimed 300 km plus for a large bomber. Raytheon has announced the development of a new air-to-air missile ‘Peregrine’, half the size of current weapons, but achieve greater speed and maneuverability and will be useable against drones, manned aircraft and cruise missiles. American AIM-9X Sidewinder, Israeli Python-5, Chinese PL-12, India’s Astra (80 km), American AIM-120 AMRAAM (180 km) and the futuristic ‘AWACS Killer’ Novator K-100 (200 km +), are the other state-of-the-art missiles. Ramjet propelled AAMs will enable future medium-range missiles to maintain higher average speed across their engagement envelope.


IAF got the fourth-generation Russian Vympel R-73, R-27 and fifth-generation R-77 RVVAE missiles along with MiG-21 ‘Bison’ and Su-30MKI. The French MBDA MICA, dual head (IR & EM), is part of the Mirage 2000 upgrade project and of the Rafale weapon package. 400 are being bought. Rafale can carry up to six MICA missiles. Mirage 2000 upgrade has inbuilt British MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM CCM selected for Jaguar over-wing station. The MiG-29 upgrade allows carriage of R-77 missile. DRDO’s Astra is the first air-to-air missile developed in India. It is an all-weather BVRAAM that features mid-course inertial guidance with terminal active radar homing. It can take targets at a distance of 20 km and long-range targets up to a distance of 80 km. Astra has been integrated with IAF’s Su-30MKI and will come on board Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 in the future. Limited series production of Astra missiles began in 2017. The Astra Mk-2 is an advanced version of the Astra Mk-1 missile and estimated range in excess of 100 km. It will be the Indian equivalent to Meteor BVRAAM, with ‘Dual-pulse rocket Motor’. The Meteor (100 km range) developed by MBDA is being acquired with Rafale. Rafael Advanced Systems Python-5 of Israel has been selected as the secondary close combat, heat seeking missile for the LCA Tejas after R-73. India has made a request for information about integrating Meteor on their Su-30MKI.


Precision of delivery can be considered the single most important development for surface attack. It is not only more economical to destroy the target, but also reduces collateral damage. PGMs use radio, radar, optical or laser marking for guidance and targeting. Lockheed Martin Hellfire II anti-tank missile is guided by the millimeter-wave radar aboard Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow. India’s acquisition of 22 Apache AH-64Es would include over 1,350 Hellfire missiles and 245 Raytheon Stinger AAMs. Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is planned to be fitted with indigenous anti-tank missile Helina. MiG-29K can carry Kh-31A and Kh-35 anti-shipping missiles.

Precision of delivery can be considered the single most important development for surface attack as it is more economical and reduces collateral damage

Air-to-surface missiles score over bombs with longer stand-off ranges and speed of impact, but often have lighter warhead. Air-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, the anti-ship or landattack Harpoon missiles are good examples. IAF acquired 24 Harpoon Block II missiles for its maritime strike Jaguars in December 2010. Rafale has options of the modular Hammer air-to-surface PGM system and AM-39 Exocet sea-skimming missile. Russian air-to-surface missiles carried on Su-30MKI include Kh-59 ME TV guided standoff missile with 115 km range, Kh-59MK active radar homing anti-ship missile (285 km), Kh-31 anti-radar missile (30 km) and Kh-29 laser guided missile (30 km). India’s DRDO is developing ‘Nag’ (HeliNa) anti-tank missile. Its air-launched cruise missile BrahMos has already been tested from a Su-30MKI. Once the AESA Radar comes with Su-30 MKI upgrade, it will be a potent combination. BrahMos II would be a Mach-7 Hypersonic Cruise Missile being developed in collaboration with Russia. India is looking at integrating the MBDA Brimstone ground attack missile on Su-30MKI. DRDO is also developing the nuclear capable Nirbhay cruise missile.


Lockheed Martin is helping the US Air Force (USAF) Research Laboratory develop and mature high-energy laser weapon pod, including the high-energy laser that will be demonstrated on a fighter jet by 2021. The fibre laser is called Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator or SHiELD. If successful, the technology could be a game-changer that could take out surface-to-air and air-to-air missile threats more cheaply than current intercept methods. Northrop Grumman is working with the USAF to develop radical new laser weapons for supersonic fighter jets and hopes to test them in 2019 with plans to use directed energy systems for self-protection. Rail-guns use electromagnetic fields and powerful magnets to launch projectiles at hypersonic speeds. These projectiles are hard to follow and destroy because of their low altitudes and blistering speeds.


DRDO is working on a slew weapons including Directed Energy Weapons, and hypersonic vehicles/missiles. The immediate concern for the IAF is to replace and upgrade AAMs by acquiring those with longer range and better capability under countermeasures environment. The inventory has to be large enough for operations against both the adversaries China and Pakistan. Similarly, PGM inventories have to go up. It is heartening to note that many orders have been placed in last six months. Rafale squadron will form in India in April 2020. Early operationalisation of the aircraft as a weapon platform should be a priority to take advantage of contracted modern weapons.